Soviet space exploration began in the Forties
The first orbiting spacecraft, Sputnik 1, was launched in 1957 but 10 years prior the Soviets had already begun exploring space. They launched a variety of sub-orbital rockets, the V-2 and R-1 series, which performed radiation, animal and other experiments in the upper atmosphere on short flights into space.
They had a rocket as powerful as the Saturn V
The Saturn V still holds the record for the most powerful rocket of all time, but the Soviets built their own heavy-lift rocket in the late Sixties in an attempt to claim the crown for themselves. Known as the N1 it would’ve had a comparable thrust rating, although it could take less mass to orbit, but all four of the test flights ended in failure.
They made a last-gasp attempt to beat Apollo 11
Around 18 July 1969 Buzz Aldrin reported seeing an object outside his window as Apollo 11 ventured to the Moon. What he probably saw was Luna 15, an unmanned Soviet probe attempting to return a sample from the Moon before Apollo 11 could do so. Its progress was tracked by Jodrell Bank in the UK but it sadly crashed on the surface.
They built and launched their own space shuttle
In 1988 the Soviet-built Buran spacecraft took flight, nearly identical in both its design and functionality to NASA’s Space Shuttle. It launched on the heaviest ever liquid fuelled rocket, Energia, and completed two automated orbits before landing. The program was scrapped in 1993, though, following the dissolution of the USSR.
Nine of the first ten space stations were Soviet-built
The Soviets launched the first space station, Salyut 1, in 1971. This was succeeded by eight more (excluding NASA’s Skylab in 1973), culminating in the construction of the giant Mir space station that began in 1986. It retained the record for the longest orbiting man-made satellite until being surpassed by the ISS in 2010.
Image courtesy of NASA